What Is a Learning Disability?
Learning disabilities are a group of neurodevelopmental disorders that can significantly hamper a person’s ability to learn new things. As a result, the person may have trouble with tasks such as speaking, reading, writing, paying attention, understanding information, remembering things, performing mathematical calculations, or coordinating movements.
Learning disabilities typically develop at a young age and are often diagnosed during the person’s school years, since the primary focus at school is learning. It is estimated that 8% to 10% of children below the age of 18 in the United States have some type of learning disability.
However, some people are not diagnosed until they attend college or get a job, and others never receive an official diagnosis, so they go through life without knowing why they have so much trouble with academics, work, relationships, and basic day-to-day tasks.
It’s important to understand that people with learning disabilities generally have average to superior intelligence and are often gifted in fields such as science, math, fine arts, and other creative mediums. The person is often bright and intelligent, but there may be a gap between their potential and the skills expected from a person of their age.
Nevertheless, some of the most accomplished and influential people in history have had learning disabilities, including Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, and Winston Churchill.
This article explores the types, causes, symptoms, and treatment of learning disabilities.
Types of Learning Disabilities
“Learning disability” is an umbrella term that encompasses many types of specific learning disorders, including:
- Dyslexia: Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, accounting for 80% of all learning disability cases. It is a language processing disorder characterized by difficulty with speaking, reading, writing, or understanding words. This can cause the person's vocabulary to develop at a slower pace and lead to issues with grammar, reading comprehension, and other language skills.
- Dysgraphia: People with dysgraphia may have difficulty putting their thoughts into writing due to issues with vocabulary, spelling, grammar, memory, and critical thinking. This condition is characterized by poor handwriting, as the person may struggle with letter spacing, spatial awareness, and motor planning. Dysgraphia can make it hard for the person to think and write simultaneously.
- Dyscalculia: Sometimes known as “math dyslexia,” this condition includes learning disorders related to mathematics, such as difficulty with numbers, concepts, and reasoning. People with dyscalculia may struggle to count money, read clocks and tell time, perform mental math calculations, identify number patterns, and apply mathematical formulae.
- Auditory processing disorder (APD): People with APD may have difficulty processing sounds because their brain misinterprets auditory information received by the ear.As a result, they may confuse the order of sounds in certain words, or they may not be able to distinguish between sounds such as the teacher’s voice and the background noise in the classroom.
- Language processing disorder (LPD): This is a subset of APD, characterized by difficulties with processing spoken language. The person may have difficulty attaching meaning to sound groups representing words, sentences, and stories.
- Nonverbal learning disabilities (NVLD): NVLD is characterized by difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and other nonverbal signals.
- Visual perceptual/visual motor deficit: People with this condition may have difficulty with hand-eye coordination and motor activities. They may frequently lose their spot while reading, demonstrate unusual eye movements while reading or writing, confuse similar-looking letters, have difficulty navigating their environment, and struggle to manage items like pens, pencils, crayons, glue, and scissors.
What Is Neurodivergence and What Does It Mean to Be Neurodivergent?
Symptoms of Learning Disabilities
These are some of the symptoms of learning disabilities:
- Poor memory
- Difficulty focusing
- Short attention span
- Difficulty with reading or writing
- Inability to distinguish between sounds, letters, or numbers
- Difficulty sounding out words
- Tendency to put numbers or letters in the wrong sequence
- Difficulty telling time
- Confusion between right and left
- Tendency to reverse letters
- Difficulty grasping certain words and concepts
- Disconnect between words and meaning (i.e.. saying one thing but meaning another)
- Difficulty expressing thoughts and emotions
- Poor hand-eye coordination
- Delayed speech development
- Trouble with listening and following instructions
- Inappropriate responses
- Restlessness and impulsiveness
- Tendency to act out
- Difficulty with discipline
- Resistance to change
- Inconsistent performance on a daily or weekly basis
While all children struggle with some of these things from time to time during their school years, people with learning disabilities tend to have a cluster of these symptoms that persist even as they get older.
According to the National Institute for Learning Development (NILD), frustration is a hallmark of this condition, since people with learning disabilities often excel at some things but do very poorly in other areas, and are often acutely aware of the gaps between what they can and cannot do.
The NILD notes that people with learning disabilities often find themselves failing in certain academic or professional areas due to reasons beyond their control, or having to put in tremendous amounts of effort in order to succeed. This experience can be difficult, confusing, and demotivating, often causing the person to feel sad and disappointed.
Developmental Disabilities: Types, Causes, Coping
Causes of Learning Disabilities
Learning disabilities are caused by differences in the neurological functioning of the person’s brain. These differences can occur before the person is born, during their birth, or in early childhood, and may be caused by factors such as:
- Maternal illness during pregnancy
- Birth complications that block the flow of oxygen to the baby’s brain
- Certain genes that can make the person more genetically predisposed to developing a learning disability
- Injury or illness, such as meningitis, in early childhood
- Health conditions such as cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome often involve some extent of learning disability
However, it’s important to note that learning disabilities should not be mistaken for learning problems that arise due to other factors such as:
- Visual, hearing, verbal, or motor handicaps
- Intellectual disability
- Emotional disturbances
- Economic, cultural, or environmental disadvantages
The Relationship Between ADHD and Learning Disabilities
Diagnosing Learning Disabilities
A healthcare professional can diagnose learning disabilities. The diagnostic process might involve:
- Academic testing: The healthcare provider may administer a standardized achievement test that checks the person’s reading, writing, and arithmetic skills, as well as an intelligence quotient (IQ) test. If the person performs well on the IQ test but has a lower score on the achievement test, it could indicate that they have a learning disability.
- Performance review: The healthcare provider may review and evaluate the person’s academic, professional, social, and developmental performance.
- Medical history: The healthcare provider will likely ask questions about the person’s personal and family medical history.
- Physical and neurological exam: The healthcare provider may conduct a physical and neurological exam to check for other health conditions such as brain diseases, mental health conditions, and developmental and intellectual disabilities.
Every learning disability has different symptoms and everyone’s experience of the condition is unique as they may experience differences in the frequency and intensity of their symptoms.
Some people may have a single, isolated learning difficulty that doesn’t have a severe impact on their day-to-day life; whereas others may have several learning disabilities that overlap with each other and make it difficult for them to function without support.
Treating Learning Disabilities
Learning disabilities are lifelong conditions that cannot be fixed or cured; however, with timely diagnosis, treatment, and support, people with learning disabilities can be successful at school, work, and among their community.
Treatment for learning disabilities may involve:
- Special education: Children with learning disabilities may benefit from education by specially trained teachers who perform a comprehensive evaluation of the child’s abilities and then help the child build on their strengths while compensating for their disabilities.
- Medication: Some people may need to take medication to improve their ability to focus and concentrate.
- Therapy: Psychotherapy can help people with learning disabilities deal with emotional issues and develop coping skills.
- Other interventions: People with learning disabilities may also benefit from other interventions such as speech and language therapy.
- Support groups: People with learning disabilities as well as parents of children with learning disabilities may benefit from support group meetings that help them connect with others who have similar experiences. Learning difficulties can often lead to tension, misunderstandings, and conflicts among the family, particularly among families where the condition is hereditary.
I Became Dyslexic in My 30s—Here's How I Deal
A Word From Verywell
Every human being is equipped with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. All of us are able to do some things effortlessly but struggle in other areas.
It’s important to recognize that while people with learning disabilities have some challenges with learning, they are not in any way inferior to anyone else. Special education, treatment, support, kindness, and patience can help them achieve success.
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
Vidyadharan V, Tharayil HM. Learning disorder or learning disability: Time to rethink. Indian J Psychol Med. 2019;41(3):276-278. doi:10.4103/IJPSYM.IJPSYM_371_18
National Institute for Learning Development. What is a learning disability?
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Learning disabilities.
Learning Difficulties Association of America. Types of learning disabilities.
Walden University. 7 learning disabilities every psychology professional should study.
Kohli A, Sharma S, Padhy SK. Specific learning disabilities: Issues that remain unanswered. Indian J Psychol Med. 2018;40(5):399-405. doi:10.4103/IJPSYM.IJPSYM_86_18
Learning Difficulties Association of America. Symptoms of learning disabilities.
American Academy of Pediatricians. Diagnosing a learning disability.
National Health Service. Learning disabilities.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. How are learning disabilities diagnosed?
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. What are some signs of learning disabilities?
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Learning disabilities are disorders that affect the ability to: Understand or use spoken or written language. Do mathematical calculations. Coordinate movements. Direct attention.What are the 4 types of learning disabilities? ›
- Spoken language-listening and speaking.
- Written language-reading, writing, and spelling.
- Arithmetic-calculation and concepts.
- Reasoning-organization and integration of ideas and thoughts.
The top five most common learning disabilities are dyslexia, ADHD, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and dyspraxia. Each of these conditions can present with a range of symptoms and can be diagnosed through a combination of medical and educational assessments.Is ADHD considered a learning disability? ›
ADHD is not considered to be a learning disability. It can be determined to be a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), making a student eligible to receive special education services.What is learning disability and examples? ›
Learning disabilities: Our definition
A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities – for example household tasks, socialising or managing money – which affects someone for their whole life.
Learning disorders are believed to occur because of an abnormality in the nervous system, either in the structure of the brain or in the functioning of brain chemicals. The difference in the nervous system causes the child with a learning disorder to receive, process, or communicate information in a different way.What is the number 1 learning disabilities? ›
Reading disability (dyslexia) - is the most common LD, representing at least 80% of all LDs, and results from deficits in phonologic processing. Skills necessary for appropriate phonologic processing involve reading decoding, phonics, ability to produce sounds, and proper auditory capabilities.What is a mild learning disability? ›
Mild – A person who is said to have a mild learning disability is usually able to hold a conversation, and communicate most of their needs and wishes. They may need some support to understand abstract or complex ideas. People are often independent in caring for themselves and doing many everyday tasks.How serious is a learning disability? ›
Someone who has a severe learning disability will: have little or no speech. find it very difficult to learn new skills. need support with daily activities such as dressing, washing, eating and keeping safe.What is the difference between learning disability and ADHD? ›
So, what's the difference between ADHD and an LD? An LD makes it difficult to acquire specific skills such as reading skills or math skills. By contrast, ADHD impacts more global skills and executive functions like the ability to focus, the ability to control emotions, and the ability to control impulsive behaviour.
A learning disability is not a mental health problem. But people with learning disabilities may also experience mental health problems. There are lots of different reasons for this.How do you test for learning disability? ›
The types of tests to consider as part of a comprehensive learning disorder evaluation include intelligence or cognitive abilities tests, achievement tests, visual-motor integration tests, and language tests. Intelligence and cognitive tests evaluate a student's overall intellectual or cognitive ability.Is ADHD a form of autism? ›
ADHD is not on the autism spectrum, but they have some of the same symptoms. And having one of these conditions increases the chances of having the other. Experts have changed the way they think about how autism and ADHD are related.How do you fix learning disabilities? ›
- Extra help. A reading specialist, math tutor or other trained professional can teach your child ways to do schoolwork, study and get organized.
- Individualized education program (IEP). ...
- Changes in the classroom. ...
- Therapy. ...
- Medicine. ...
- Complementary and alternative treatments.
They may have trouble with transitions or seem disorganized. Other common signs of learning differences include difficulty following directions, trouble concentrating, and not getting homework done on time — or at all. Failing tests, especially ones you know they've studied for, is also a sign.Is autism a learning disabilities? ›
Autism is sometimes referred to as a spectrum, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Autism is not a learning disability, but around half of autistic people may also have a learning disability.How do learning disabilities start? ›
These can include poor nutrition or exposure to lead in water or in paint. Young children who do not receive the support they need for their intellectual development may show signs of learning disabilities once they start school. Sometimes a person may develop a learning disability later in life due to injury.Is a learning disability a disability? ›
Is a Learning Disability a Disability? Social Security recognizes learning disabilities as disabling medical conditions under listing 112.11, for "neurodevelopmental disorders." This listing applies to dyslexia (reading difficulties), dyscalculia (math difficulties), and other types of specific learning problems.Do learning disabilities run in families? ›
Often, learning problems can run in families (genetic), but environmental factors can play a role too. Mostly, learning disabilities occur because there is an enormous range of variation that occurs normally in people's cognitive strengths and weaknesses.What happens if my child has a learning disability? ›
Children with learning disorders often need extra help and instruction that are specialized for them. Having a learning disorder can qualify a child for special education services in school. Schools usually do their own testing for learning disorders to see if a child needs intervention.
Fifty percent of children and adolescents with ADHD also have some type of learning disability (LD), such as dyslexia or auditory processing disorder. An LD may explain why a child with ADHD on medication can sit still and stay focused and yet do poorly academically.What are 3 conditions associated with learning disabilities? ›
These include; heart defects, poor vision, hearing and dentition, obesity, early dementia, thyroid and respiratory problems. People with learning disabilities are more prone to diabetes due to sedentary lifestyles and obesity. The condition is often undiagnosed and needs to be monitored and managed effectively.Can children outgrow learning disabilities? ›
Learning disorders are considered brain-based disorders that individuals do not typically “outgrow.” However, difficulties that children experience during school-age years may change as they grow older and different skills are required to succeed.Do learning disabilities get better? ›
Learning disabilities have no cure, but early intervention can lessen their effects. People with learning disabilities can develop ways to cope with their disabilities. Getting help earlier increases the chance of success in school and later in life.Who is highly intelligent with learning disabilities? ›
That's what happened to several famous people with learning disabilities, including Alexander Graham Bell, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Thomas Edison and Louis Pasteur. Alexander Graham Bell most likely had dyslexia, and he went on to invent the first practical telephone. His learning disability didn't stop him.What is the difference between a learning disability and low IQ? ›
An intellectual disability describes below-average IQ and a lack of skills needed for daily living. This condition used to be called “mental retardation.” A learning disability refers to weaknesses in certain academic skills. Reading, writing and math are the main ones.Can you still be smart with a learning disability? ›
Students with specific learning disabilities have average to above average intelligence but may have difficulties acquiring and/or demonstrating knowledge and understanding content.Can you live a normal life with a learning disability? ›
A learning disability is different for everyone. Lots of people who have a learning disability can work, have relationships, live alone and get qualifications. Other people might need more support throughout their life.Are learning disabilities neurological? ›
A learning disability is a neurological condition which affects the brain's ability to send, receive, and process information. A child with a learning disability may have difficulties in reading, writing, speaking, listening, understanding mathematical concepts, and with general comprehension.How does someone with a learning disability behave? ›
Other behavior problems that can mask a learning disability include impulsivity, inattention, not following directions, mood swings, disorganization, temper tantrums, and defiance.
Common achievement tests used to diagnose a learning disability include the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Achievement (WJ), the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT), the Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT), and the Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement (KTEA). These tests focus on reading, writing, and math.Is learning disability the same as mental health? ›
Is mental health the same as learning disability? No! Unlike learning disability, mental health problems can affect anyone at any time and may be overcome with treatment. A learning disability is a reduced intellectual difficulty with everyday activities which affects someone for their whole life.Is lack of focus a learning disability? ›
ADHD – Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), while not considered a learning disability, can certainly disrupt learning. Children with ADHD often have problems sitting still, staying focused, following instructions, staying organized, and completing homework.Is OCD a learning disability? ›
The researchers found that adolescent patients with OCD had impairments in all learning and memory tasks. The study also demonstrated for the first time impaired goal-directed control and lack of cognitive plasticity early in the development of OCD.Is anxiety considered a learning disability? ›
While anxiety can certainly make things like focusing and paying attention more difficult, anxiety is not a cause of learning difficulties, but rather one of many symptoms. Children with learning differences are significantly more likely to have challenges with anxiety than children without a learning difference.How does a learning disability affect you emotionally? ›
Much research has demonstrated that students with learning disabilities experience emotional distress related to their difficulties. Students with learning disabilities tend to have higher levels of emotional concerns, such as depression, loneliness, and low self-esteem, than do their peers without disabilities.What age are learning disabilities diagnosed? ›
Learning disabilities are usually not diagnosed until students have been in school for about three years, but there are often early signs of disabilities that parents may notice. More importantly, there are also strategies and resources that can help.Is dyslexia a learning disability? ›
Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed. Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities.Is my child lazy or learning disabled? ›
The first way to determine whether or not your child is “lazy" or “learning disabled" is to see if she is succeeding at school: if you are succeeding, why bother working hard? If this is your child, she may be avoiding more difficult work for fear that she may fail.Who carries the ADHD gene mother or father? ›
You can inherit genes that boost risk for ADHD from your mother, from your father or from both parents. In a recent Norwegian study, inherited risk was somewhat higher when a child's mother had ADHD compared to their father, but researchers weren't certain why that would be.
ADHD tends to run in families and, in most cases, it's thought the genes you inherit from your parents are a significant factor in developing the condition. Research shows that parents and siblings of someone with ADHD are more likely to have ADHD themselves.What is Aspergers called now? ›
The name for Asperger's Syndrome has officially changed, but many still use the term Asperger's Syndrome when talking about their condition. The symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome are now included in a condition called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ASD is now the name used for a wide range of autism-like disorders.What medication is used for learning disabilities? ›
Typical antipsychotics: chlorpromazine, haloperidol and thioridazine are the most widely used typical antipsychotics for the management of behaviour problems in adults with learning disabilities.How do people with learning disabilities learn best? ›
Make learning participative. Encourage peer learning. Break tasks down into smaller steps that will incrementally build into the task objective. Use learners' own words, language, materials and personal context - be clear about activity purpose and how it relates to the skills needs of the learner.How common are learning disabilities? ›
At least 1 in every 59 children has one or several learning disabilities. 1 in 5 children in the U.S. have learning and thinking differences such as ADHD or Dyslexia. As of 2021, 2.8 million kids are actively getting services involving special education.What is the cause of slow learning? ›
There are different types of causes of slow learning. Among these, low intellectual abilities such as sub-normal IQs, some personal factors, psychological factors, environmental factors etc are very common causes of slow learning.Can you have a learning disability without autism? ›
Autism and learning disabilities can occur together, but they are distinct from one another. They can also be exclusive — that is, you can have one without the other.Can ADHD cause a learning disability? ›
ADHD is not a learning disability, as it does not affect a person's ability to learn a specific skill set, such as reading, writing, or mathematics. However, some effects of ADHD, such as difficulty concentrating, can lead to some challenges in learning.What is the most common learning disability? ›
Commonly recognized specific learning disabilities include: Reading disability (dyslexia) - is the most common LD, representing at least 80% of all LDs, and results from deficits in phonologic processing.What is the most common cause of learning disability? ›
The causes include genetic factors, infections before birth, brain injury or damage at birth, brain infections or brain damage after birth. However, for many who are diagnosed with having a general learning disability, the cause remains unknown.
Learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can frustrate students, confound parents and challenge educators. But all are treatable once they have been detected and diagnosed.Is learning disability a form of mental illness? ›
Is a learning disability a mental health problem? A learning disability is not a mental health problem. But people with learning disabilities may also experience mental health problems. There are lots of different reasons for this.Is a learning disability in math? ›
Dyscalculia is a learning disability in math. People with dyscalculia have trouble with math at many levels. They often struggle with key concepts like bigger vs. smaller.How do you treat a child with learning disability? ›
- Keep things in perspective. A learning disability isn't insurmountable. ...
- Become your own expert. ...
- Be an advocate for your child. ...
- Remember that your influence outweighs all others. ...
- Clarify your goals. ...
- Be a good listener. ...
- Offer new solutions. ...
- Keep the focus.
ADHD is not on the autism spectrum, but they have some of the same symptoms. And having one of these conditions increases the chances of having the other. Experts have changed the way they think about how autism and ADHD are related.What learning style is most common with ADHD? ›
In general, children with ADHD are right-brained learners. They prefer to learn visually — by watching or doing a task in an activity-based, hands-on format, not by listening to lectures, practicing drills, or memorizing. There are many ways to implement visual learning outside the classroom.Can my ADHD child get SSI? ›
If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, or ADD, he or she can qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits if the severity of the child's ADHD meets the Social Security Administration's childhood impairment listing for neurodevelopmental disorders (listing 112.11).What is an example of a mild learning disability? ›
Some of the most common mild learning disabilities include dyslexia, which impacts reading, dysgraphia, which impacts writing, and dyscalculia, which impacts math and organization. ADHD and auditory processing disorder can also affect students' ability to learn.What are 3 known causes of learning disabilities? ›
- Family history and genes. Having a blood relative, such as a parent, with a learning disorder raises the risk of a child having a disorder.
- Risks before birth and shortly after. ...
- Emotional trauma. ...
- Physical trauma. ...
- Poisonous substances.
The Americans with Disabilities Act recognizes Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a developmental disability. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) , developmental disabilities are conditions that affect learning, language, physical, or behavioral areas.
- Oral Expression.
- Listening Comprehension.
- Written Expression.
- Basic Reading Skills.
- Reading Fluency Skills.
- Reading Comprehension.
- Mathematics Calculation.
- Mathematics Problem Solving.
Learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can frustrate students, confound parents and challenge educators. But all are treatable once they have been detected and diagnosed.How do they test for a learning disability? ›
Learning disabilities are traditionally diagnosed by conducting two tests and noticing a significant discrepancy between their scores. These tests are an intelligence (or IQ) test and a standardized achievement (reading, writing, arithmetic) test.Does ADHD qualify for SSI? ›
Having attention deficit disorder (ADD/ADHD) is not an automatic qualification for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), but a documented diagnosis can be helpful if the condition and the impairments are severe enough. ADHD is included in the category of Listed Impairments, under the SSI guidelines.Can a child get SSI for ADHD? ›
If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, or ADD, he or she can qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits if the severity of the child's ADHD meets the Social Security Administration's childhood impairment listing for neurodevelopmental disorders (listing 112.11).Is anxiety a learning disorder? ›
While anxiety can certainly make things like focusing and paying attention more difficult, anxiety is not a cause of learning difficulties, but rather one of many symptoms. Children with learning differences are significantly more likely to have challenges with anxiety than children without a learning difference.How do you treat learning disabilities? ›
Most often treated with medication and therapy. May include intervention program and remedial education. Treated with behavioral therapy, alternate methods of learning like remedial education, individualized education plan (IEP), and intervention programs.Are learning disabilities genetic? ›
Research shows that risk factors may be present from birth and tend to run in families. In fact, children who have a parent with a learning disability are more likely to develop a learning disability themselves.What is the biggest problem for most students with learning disabilities? ›
These include: Lack of appropriate instruction or being taught in a way that doesn't enable a student to learn. School climate such as bullying or inadequate resources for instruction and support. Low expectations for student success.What are rare learning disabilities? ›
Aphasia – Aphasia is a rare condition that impacts a students' ability to use and comprehend words. Students with this disorder often have trouble remembering names of items or people and have difficulty speaking fluently and expressing themselves. Dysgraphia – Students with Dysgraphia have difficulty with handwriting.